Monday, 18 January 2010

GUEST BLOG: Crossing Genres, Like Stepping-Stones in a Stream - Lavie Tidhar

Steampunk, I wrote back in 2005 (in “Some Notes Towards A Working Definition of Steampunk”, published in Apex Digest), “is to a large extent a cross-genre phenomenon.” And I qualified that by saying that steampunk tells stories “which discard the somewhat superficial distinction between “science fiction”, “fantasy” and “horror” (not to mention crime, historical fiction or romance).”

Which I suppose is why I love steampunk.

I never really understood why people get so worked up about trying to distinguish science fiction from fantasy, literary fiction from crime, romance from horror (haha, just joking). Emma is both romance and literature, surely? And L.A. Confidential is, besides being a “crime” novel, also one of the great works of American literature. Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia is as much a work of fantasy as it is science fiction, just as Zelazny’ Lord of Light beautifully blends the two.

More and more, crime narratives influence science fiction novels. Romance is shaping up modern fantasy. And all these genres feed back into the world of literary fiction – Number9dream or Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow immediately come to mind.

As a writer, I have very little patience for the artificial borders of genre marketing. Zoran Živkovic argues for all non-realistic fiction to be called Fantastika, which I think is quite a wonderful way of putting it – at least if you care for that sort of thing. I prefer to simply think of genres as toolboxes sitting by the desk, waiting to be used – or, if you prefer, as stepping-stones in a stream where you can hop from one to the other at leisure (just trying not to fall into the water in the process!)

In my new novel, The Bookman (released last week in the UK, with an American edition coming in August), I felt quite free to mix and match. There’s a bit of romance in there - a bit of mystery – a bit of the Gothic – quite a lot of adventure, and science fiction too. It’s a fun book, I think, paying homage to all those books I loved as a kid and still do today, from the Sherlock Holmes stories to the novels of Jules Verne. No one cared back in the nineteenth century whether something was a “genre”. They just told stories.

My favourite steampunk books equally cross – and cross-fertilise – genres. Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates mixes time travel and Egyptian magic, history and fiction; in Paul di Filippo’s Walt and Emily two of the greatest American poets of the nineteenth century go on a phantasmagoric journey into another world (and delight poetry-lovers everywhere by making nookie in the process); and zombies and scientists share the same world comfortably with a skeleton piloting a blimp in James Blaylock’s Homunculus.

My favourite books mix tropes as if they weren’t even aware they existed. Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward begins as science fiction and ends as dark fantasy, while Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’ Feeling for Snow mixes a crime plot with hauntingly beautiful writing only to end unexpectedly as science fiction.

And why not? I’m not arguing for the sort of “cyborgs vs. elves” books, but I do think a sort of conceptual surprise is essential for fiction, and old clichés can gain new life when re-investigated. Fiction doesn’t have to be fun, but there is nothing worse than a person – or a book – who take themselves too seriously. I once read an article by a science fiction writer describing the process of creation: “I begin with a spreadsheet and start running calculations...”

To which I say, “Bah, humbug!”

The thing is, I love the tropes of genre fiction. I love haunted Gothic mansions, and star-crossed lovers, eccentric detectives, dragons, kung fu masters, wizards and zombies, gunslingers and poker players, spaceships and wormholes – and giant worms, and giant robots too. And I love it when those old, worn tropes are twisted and changed, and books pull the rug from underneath our expectations – I love the way Philip K. Dick plays with reality in the same way I love the way Sylvia Plath creates beauty from horror. I love watching vintage David Lynch because I know I’ll end up saying, every five minutes or so, “what the f—k is going on?”

So let’s not be purists. Let’s celebrate the fact we’ve had years and years and years of fiction, so many that they brought us Dracula and To Kill a Mockingbird, His Last Bow and Howl, The Three Musketeers and The Dumas Club, Great Expectations and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich...

Or, as my publishers tend to tell me: “Stick a giant robot in it!”

Ed Note: We'll be reviewing Lavie's book upon its arrival so please stay tuned.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The genres continue to expand as well as blur.
I think genres are more for publishers, bookstores and the like than for readers, too.
And a spreadsheet?! I didn't use one for my book - did I miss something.

ediFanoB said...

I think people like to categorize
everything. It makes life easier. I must admit that I use categories/genres by myself. I bought The Bookman last week and look forward to read it.